Skip to main content /WORLD /WORLD

A rebel with charisma and guile

Savimbi founded UNITA in 1966
Savimbi founded UNITA in 1966  

LUANDA, Angola -- Jonas Savimbi was a key player in the Cold War struggle for dominance in Africa but became internationally isolated after he resisted democracy.

He rejected three peace deals designed to end the fighting because they did not give him control of the country.

The United Nations blamed Savimbi for wrecking international peace efforts.

Although he had not been seen for several years, his animosity toward President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, who has ruled since 1977, repeatedly thwarted attempts by the international community to end the fighting.

However, Savimbi's threat has kept the governing MPLA united against a common enemy, and his death could prompt a power struggle in the ruling party.

Analysis: Power struggle brewing 
Reaction to Savimbi's death 
Diamond industry funds war 
Angola: Key events in recent history 

The elusive 67-year-old guerrilla fighter combined charisma and guile to wage a decades-long struggle for power.

He was the founding father of UNITA, which he said was born as an army of "12 people with knives" in 1966.

During the Cold War, Moscow and Washington backed different warring parties, while apartheid South Africa offered Savimbi its patronage as bulwark against the formerly-Marxist MPLA.

In the early years of UNITA's insurgency, Savimbi was backed by South Africa and the United States, who saw him as a counterpoint to MPLA's communist regime.

A cease-fire agreement was signed in 1989, but it collapsed soon afterward.

After the MPLA abandoned Marxism in 1991, Savimbi and Dos Santos signed a peace accord and both prepared for Angola's first multiparty elections.

But UNITA claimed election fraud even before the vote, and after losing to dos Santos and the MPLA, Savimbi and his fighters returned to their guerrilla tactics.

The two sides signed another peace agreement in 1994 after U.N.-sponsored talks, and U.N. peacekeepers arrived in 1995.

But in 1997, Savimbi announced he would head Angola's largest opposition party, but refused to attend the inauguration of the national unity government.

A year later, UNITA said it had demobilized, and the government legalized it.

Just three months later, however, the U.N. sanctioned UNITA after it delayed handing

over some Angolan regions it had held -- and a series of incidents followed, including the shoot-down of a U.N. plane, a government-launched offensive against UNITA and the U.N.'s decision to pull its peacekeepers out of the country.

The civil war reduced Angola from a prosperous, mineral-rich nation to one of the world's poorest countries, riddled with land-mines that make movement around the country potentially deadly.

In the last decade, UNITA is believed to have made millions out of an illegal trade in diamonds -- and Savimbi himself was accused of running UNITA-controlled territory as a personal fiefdom.

It was not clear whether anyone from UNITA's ranks could replace Savimbi, who has ruled the group ruthlessly since he founded it in 1966 to battle Portugal's colonial administration.

UNITA vice president Antonio Dembo, as well as Savimbi's close aide Paulo Lukamba Gato, are believed to be hiding out in rural Angola.




Back to the top